It’s the cliche to end all cliches: “how will this help me in the real world?”

Granted, I’m not a big fan of the concept of the Real World in the first place, but I feel that this question still has some merit. For many people, a large portion of the things that we are forced to learn in middle school and high school are both uninteresting and ultimately irrelevant to their futures. Meanwhile, it can feel like the things you want and need to learn to be a secondary consideration, if at all. And it seems that schools encourage rote memorization over skills which are critical to the modern job market.

There are a lot of things I wish I had learned in school, or that I had been taught in more depth. Financial literacy, sociology that covers things like racism and sexism in more depth than “discrimination on the basis of race/gender”, abnormal psychology and recognizing the signs of mental illness, etc. I think these are all very useful pieces of knowledge in the modern world that schools seldom teach.

Sure, there is merit to learning “the boring stuff” anyway to develop secondary skills associated with the subjects, but that’s a difficult thing to care about when you’re sixteen years old and are only in school because you’re required to be. And while things like mathematics and communication skills are useful for a variety of careers, it’s not universally true.

A lot of the problem with school stems from the fact that our modern system is 100 or so years old – particularly, it was codified long before the era of Google and Wikipedia. Many millennial may remember teachers drilling basic math into our heads and insisting we learn cursive, because we won’t always have calculators with us and we won’t always be able to just type everything. In most cases, this was far from malice – nobody could have predicted 20 years ago how the internet would change the world, and anybody who did would have been regarded as a dreamer at best.

But none of this is of much comfort when you feel that you’re being denied the skills you need. Granted, there is always the concept of self-teaching the skills you want to know. But this can be untenable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that many students don’t learn well in the classroom as it is and spend a significant portion of their time re-learning what they should have been learning during the school day,

There’s also the fact that not all skills learned outside of school are highly valued. I spent a good chunk of my time from the ages 12 to 15 playing artsy, experimental indie games. I enjoyed examining what worked about them, what didn’t, and messing with their code. Even though my parents were supportive of me playing video games as a hobby, they thought these games in particular were weird and I doubt they saw much professional merit in my interest in them.

I’m now considering graduate school for user experience design – the exact thing I didn’t know I was studying when I was playing these games. This was a few years before UX design was even a field of study that formally existed, but that’s my point exactly – you don’t always know which of your hobbies will become a valuable skill in 5 to 10 years.

There’s really no easy conclusion to draw from these observations. But I think that it’s okay to come up with your own answers. School doesn’t have to be the most important thing, and neither do the things that it teaches you. But academia has its own merits.

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